All You Need To Know About Vodka
How is Vodka Made?
Vodka is a highly distilled beverage that ís primarily made up of ethanol and water, and which can sometimes have traces of flavoring and impurities. Traditionally, this drink is made by distilling fermented potatoes or cereal grains, though some of the most modern brands use other substances like sugar or fruits. And while commercial vodka is majorly made by commercial distilling companies, there are many instances where people make their own vodka using makeshift distillers. Homemade vodka is commonly referred to as moonshine.
How Strong is Vodka?
Vodka has been around for quite some time now. Since the 1890s, standard Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Lithuanian, Latvian, Czech, Belarusian, and Estonian vodkas are 40% alcohol by volume (80 US proof), an alcohol percentage that ís widely misattributed to one Dmitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist, and inventor. However, the EU considers this rate to be quite high and has capped the minimum alcohol by volume or ABV for any European vodka to be at no more than 37.5%. In the US, on the other hand, products sold as vodkî must have a minimum alcohol content level of 40%. But even with such loose restrictions, most of the vodka sold contain an alcohol percentage of 40%.
How Do You Drink Vodka?
Traditionally, Vodka was meant to be drunk neat without any other mixer like ice or water. However, it ís often served chilled in vodka belt countries like Finland, Latvia, Iceland, Estonia, Belarus, Poland, Ukraine, Russia, etc. Nowadays, it is common to find vodka being used in mixed drinks and cocktails like Cosmopolitan, vodka martini, vodka tonic, White or Black Russian, Bloody Mary, Moscow Mule and vodka tonic amongst others.
What is The History of Vodka?
The name vodka is derived from the Slavic word ëvodaí, interpreted as ëlittle water and was first recorded in 1405 in Akta Grodzkie, which are court documents from Poland’s Palatinate of Sandomierz. At the time, the word referred to cosmetic products and medicines, while the beverage itself was called ëgorzalkaí, which means “to burn” in ancient Polish.
The interesting thing is that scholars still debate about the beginnings of vodka to this day and the issue is a contentious one since there ís very little evidence to support any theory. For many years, beverages varied significantly when compared to the vodka we have today as the beverage at that time had a different smell, color, and flavor, and was initially used as medicine. The beverage had very little alcohol, the maximum alcohol content being about 14% – as this is the only amount that can be attained through natural fermentation. This is not until the still which made distillation possible increasing both alcohol content and purity, was conceived in the 8th century.
Vodka in Poland
Some scholars believe that vodka was first invented in the Poland. The fact is that the beverage has been made since the first years of the Middle Ages with local brewing traditions being as varied as the production of Scottish Whisky or Cognac in France. As earlier mentioned, the first mention of the word and the drink itself was in 1405 in the Palatinate of Sandomierz court documents. Soon after that, the drink became quite popular there.
Interestingly, some blends of polish vodka go back centuries with some of the notable ones being zubrowka and starka vodka, which dates back to as early as the 16th century. These are amongst some of the brands that were granted a monopoly to produce and sell vodka in their respective territories.
Vodka in Russia
A distilled liquor type designated by the Russian term ëvodkaí was first taken to Russia around late 14th century. In 1386, Genoese ambassadors took the first aqua vitae, which means “water of life” to Moscow. The drink obtained by distilling grape must be believed to be a spirit and concentrate of wine. According to folklore, a monk by the name Isidore from the Monastery of Chudov, which is inside Moscow’s Kremlin, made the first Russian Vodka recipe in 1430.
Having a unique knowledge of the distillation process and devices, Isidore became the inventor of a new and higher quality alcoholic beverage. Initially known as the “bread wine”, this drink was, for a very long time, exclusively made in the Grand Duchy of Moscow. As such, the beverage was closely associated with Moscow. Until the middle of the 18th century, the beverage had a relatively low alcohol content, not exceeding 40% ABV.
The drink had multiple terms recorded, with the names sometimes reflecting on the drink’s different levels of alcohol concentration, quality, the number of distillations, and filtering. The first instance of the use of the word vodka in its modern meaning in any official Russian documentation dates back to 1751 when Empress Elizabeth enforced a decree that regulated vodka distillery ownership. Due to a government policy that promoted the consumption of state manufactured vodka in the 1860s, the drink became the spirit of choice for many residents of Russia. By 1911, about 89% of all alcohol consumed in the nation was vodka.
Vodka in Sweden
It’s not until the 1950’s that the term vodka was used as a designation for beverages distilled in Sweden. Interestingly, the beverage had been in production in Sweden since the 15th century; however, its production was still relatively small by the 17th century. By the 18th century, the production of the beverage had expanded, though production was prohibited a couple of times during grain shortages. By the late 18th century, producers of vodka had turned to using potatoes to create the beverage, and this option became the dominant product for the creation of vodka by the early 19th century. The first Swedish alcoholic product to use the term vodka was Explorer Vodka created in 1958. The product was initially produced for the American export market.
Production of Vodka
Vodka can be distilled from any sugar or starch-rich plant matter with most of today’s vodka being produced using grains like corn, wheat, rye, or sorghum. Of grain vodkas, wheat and rye vodkas are considered superior. Other things used to make vodkas include soybeans, sugar beets, molasses, potatoes, rice, grapes, and in some instances, wood pulp processing or oil refinery byproducts.
In some countries like Poland, some of the vodkas are produced by simply fermenting a solution of yeast and crystal sugar. In the US, most vodkas are made using 95% ethanol produced by agricultural-industrial companies. Vodka producers by the base spirits in bulk, filter it, dilute it, bottle it, then market the end product under different vodka brand names.
Filtering and Distilling
One thing that’s common with vodkas produced in Europe and in the United State is the general use of filtration before any additional processing is done, and that includes the addition of any flavors. Filtering is, at times, done in the still during the distillation process, or afterward where the already distilled vodka is passed through activated charcoal and different media to absorb any traces of substances that impart or alter the vodka’s off-flavors. However, this is unlike what traditional vodka-making nations did. As such, most distillers from countries that made vodka the traditional way prefer using extremely accurate distillation and minimal filtering, allowing them to preserve the unique characteristics and flavors of their products.
When it comes to distilling, the master distiller is responsible for distilling the vodka and directing filtration; this includes the removal of any heads, tails, and foreshots. These distillate components contain flavor compounds like ethyl lactate & ethyl acetate (heads) and fuse oils (tails), things that impact the taste of vodka. By going through numerous rounds of distillation, the taste is modified and the clarity increased.
Repeated rounds of distillation will make the ethanol level in vodka much higher than acceptable to most users, whether legislation dictates strength limits or not. How the distillation is done and the technique the still master uses to determine the ethanol levels of the final filtered and distilled product with some vodka’s having as much 96% ethanol content. As a result, most vodkas are diluted using water before bottling.
Though most vodkas are not flavored, many of those that are have been produced around traditional vodka-drinking areas; mostly as home-made recipes for medicinal purposes or to improve the drink’s taste. Some of the most common vodka flavorings include fruit flavors, unsweetened chocolate, vanilla, ginger, cinnamon, honey and red pepper amongst other things. The tradition of flavoring vodka is also quite prevalent in Nordic countries, where the drink is seasoned using fruits, spices, and herbs. In recent days, there has been experimentation with vodka flavors leading to the production of some unusual vodka flavors like bacon vodka and very hot chili vodka.
The production and sale of vodka are a very lucrative business that has led to fierce competition. For instance, when distillers in the US recently succeeded to produce grape-based vodka, traditional vodka producers from around the Vodka Belt countries campaigned for an EU legislation that categorizes spirits only made using potatoes or grain as vodka. This proposal sparked heavy criticism from European countries in the south which generally distill their vodka using mash from wine making. The regulation, which was enforced in 2008, stipulates that any vodka that’s not made using either potatoes or grain should display the products that were used in its production.